Art That Matters

Tonda Phalen

OnStage Guest Columnist

As one of the first high schools to perform Green Day's American Idiot in the fall of 2015, those involved with Beyond the Page Theatre Company at West Potomac High School (BTPTC) knew going into it that this show would be challenging on many fronts. There was, of course, the usual set design and building, costuming, props acquisition, choreography, blocking, promotions, and hours and hours of rehearsals that comes with the production of any show; but this show had one extra, very large hurdle. We had to create a way for the show, with its edgy subject matter, to be palatable for students, parents, and the community at large. We also felt strongly that we had to do it the right way by being true to the original Broadway performance - not dumbing it down, cleaning it up, or making it less than what it was meant to be. This show had an important message and we intended to tell it, as written.

Our school's Theatre Director, Philip Lee Clark, is certainly no stranger to producing a potentially controversial show. In January 2015, BTPTC performed 8 the Play, a verbatim theatre enactment chronicling the historic trial Perry v. Schwarzenegger in a federal constitutional challenge to California’s Proposition 8. The case successfully overturned Proposition 8 and restored the freedom to marry for gay and lesbian couples in California.  On the BTPTC show's closing night, Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, plaintiffs in the subject case, along with their son, were in attendance and after the show were joined by members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC on a panel to discuss the case and the issues involved.

The support that 8 the Play received from the school's principal Alex Case and our School Board representative Dan Storck was, of course, crucial to its success. The Booster Board discussed concerns of picketing by groups in opposition to same-sex marriage, particularly as the issue had recently been brought to the forefront again in the news with the likelihood that the Supreme Court would hear it. In fact, on January 16, six days after our final performance, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the issue, and ultimately determined that same-sex marriage is a protected right.  Despite the concerns, 8 the Play was actually well received by the community and the special opportunity with Perry and Stier became historically significant to all involved, especially to the students in the show. 

In June of 2015, BTPTC produced Next to Normal, a Tony Award winning musical that tells the story of a mother who struggles with worsening bipolar disorder, and the effect that her illness has on her family. To compliment the show, the students gathered and presented information on the difficult issues raised by the musical - mental health, suicide, drug abuse, grieving a loss, ethics in modern psychiatry, and the power of love - with poster boards and handouts. The goal of the show was not simply to entertain, but to educate and make the audience think.

Despite the "Warning: This musical contains strong language and adult situations" tags, Next to Normal  performed to packed houses and even had an encore performance. It was a powerful show and following each performance people, "left the theatre ugly crying and the conversations afterward went on and on," says Clark, "I would finally have to kick people out of the school because it was late." We had clearly opened a dialogue with the community.

Even coming off the successes of shows that might be deemed controversial by some, we knew that we would really need to be creative to avoid problems with American Idiot. This was a musical that epitomized teen angst in a particularly difficult time in history, post 9/11, and it proved it with raw language, on-stage portrayals of drug use, teen pregnancy, mental health issues, and of course the hard-driving love and rage music of a generation. Yet these are issues that teens still deal with today and the show certainly does not glamorize them in any way. 

From our past experiences, we recognized that this show allowed us a means to open a community dialogue on important issues, if presented in a meaningful way. At a meeting of the BTPTC Booster Board, the Board and the Director got down to the business of creating detailed ways to take this show beyond just the performance, and with that "Art that Matters" was born. 

Because Art That Matters first needed a solid foundation on which to build, it was important to shore up the expectations of those involved. From the initial Parent/Student Interest Meeting, Clark made it clear that this was a difficult show - that there was profanity, violence, drug abuse, suicide, and teen pregnancy depicted onstage. Somehow this seemed different from edgy shows from the past; this was teens playing teens, which was a bit more real than their portrayal of adults dealing with difficult issues. 

Yes, there is profanity, but it is part of the authenticity of the show; anyone who spends any amount of time in an American High School, or even Middle School, knows that kids hear and use this language. Besides, the show's characters are dealing with very dark issues that realistically warrant more than a "gosh, darn." Having subsequently seen a performance of American Idiot by another theatre that omitted much of the profanity and video clips of yet another that actually didn't have one of the lead characters shoot drugs but instead make a anti-drug statement, it is clear that the show loses much of its believability by being "cleaned up."  From the beginning, we felt strongly that if the show were to lose its authenticity and believability, then it would lose its true impact and its ability to open up a community dialogue. This trust and dialogue were crucial to bringing about awareness, understanding, and change. This was the driving force in our decision to perform the show, precisely as written.

"If you are uncomfortable with this, then this may not be the show for you" was a phrase that Clark used at least a dozen times during that first meeting as he outlined each potentially offensive aspect fairly explicitly. Expectations were clearly set. It was important that everyone involved in the project knew that the show's message is an important one and one that needs to be told without dilution, but with a full-throttle rendering of and advocacy for the issues. 

These expectations were carried forth in all of the promotional materials that we used for the show. Warning language was carefully selected to make sure that audience members fully knew what they were in for and was included with all promotions, including online social media. Likewise, we promoted the larger picture of the Art That Matters concept so that the community understood that they, too, had a role in the show and that it was being performed not for shock value but for educational value.

From the interest meeting and throughout the promotion and run of the show, Clark outlined and stayed true to his concept of Art That Matters. This continued to highlight the importance of taking the show beyond mere entertainment, instead using it to educate and share. Without giving away too much of the show, he talked at the interest meeting about incorporating actual physical art - representing hope and light after the darkness and despair - into the house of the theatre, as a visual and emotional counterbalance to the harsh realities of the show. 

Theatre students sought out art donations from area artists for this part of the project. The West Potomac Art Department also got involved with students creating art with the theme of "hope." The art served well as an integral part of the show, and a silent auction conducted throughout the run of the show raised $2,700 for a non-profit organization selected by the students, To Write Love on Her Arms, an organization dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. This collaborative effort further helped to create an invested community.

Additionally, we scheduled three Talk Back sessions - an opportunity for actual dialogue with the community - covering substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and mental health. We brought in professionals to provide information and resources about these all-too-prevalent dark issues that pervade the show, issues that actually do live amongst us in our own communities. These Talk Back sessions featured panels of people with a unique perspective to share - and they bravely held back nothing while relating their own unique stories. 

Like the show itself, certain moments during the talk backs were especially profound and touching: an ex-addict revealing that drug addiction often starts off as "just wanting to belong;" a 19-year old who while expressing profound love for her 4-year old at home, admitting that her opportunities in life had been forever changed and pleading with students to make their education a priority; hearing first hand the heart-wrenching story of a young girl discovering her father's suicide and suffering years of depression before eventually spiraling into her own mental breakdown; audience members with meaningful questions and their own stories. What was shared between the speakers panel and the audience was extraordinary in its openness. More than a few tears were shed and we came together as a community to talk openly about issues that all too often are pushed into the shadows. One student cast member received her second standing ovation of the night from the audience when she spoke openly during the Talk Back about her own struggles with depression. 

Of course, all of this was an aside to the actual show itself, which received rave reviews from audience members - an audience that trusted us and was richly rewarded for doing so. The show brought an even larger community together in a way that only well-performed theatre can do. We had created an important foundation with Art That Matters, but to paraphrase from the show's final number, "in the end, we had the time of our lives," because of the story, because of the music, because of the honesty. 

BTPTC's production of American Idiot was marketed as much more than simply a show, and anyone who was involved in it, or simply witnessed it, knows that it was indeed so much more. This show had a profound impact on many people - then, still, and always - and we can not imagine having had that opportunity stripped away by weakness, fear, and intolerance. In trying to build a better world, may we all support Art That Matters.


[Sidebar #1]  Recent updates

This article was originally drafted in January 2016, in response to the decision by Enfield High School in Connecticut to cancel it's production of Green Day's American Idiot citing the cause for suspending the production as "a very small number of extremely vocal people [who] have complained about our choice of production" and because the show "contains swearing, [depictions of] drug use and sex."

With this article we hoped to provide inspiration and ideas for other high schools interested in successfully performing American Idiot and to shed light on the importance of producing Art that Matters. It can be done; we proved that and it has truly paid off! Thanks to this show and other productions with challenging subject matter, BTPTC has gained a reputation as a highly respected theatre which is willing to take risks. BTPTC received one of three Outstanding School Awards from the Educational Theatre Association for the 2015-2016 season. For his staunch support of our endeavors to produce Art That Matters, the principal of West Potomac High School, Alex Case, received the Educational Theatre Association's 2015-2016 National Administrator's Award.  

On April 14-17, 2016, Jonathan Dayton High School in Springfield, NJ performed a pilot production for a new adaptation of the show for licensing in schools across the U.S. and beyond. Dayton music teacher Ashley Bauers, who directed the pilot production, stated, “Piloting American Idiot is an incredible experience because we're getting to work with a piece of living, breathing theatre. More importantly, we're confronting issues this show brings up that are vital and relevant topics to discuss with our kids. Ideally, the audience will walk away from this production empowered to have these conversations with their loved ones.”  

To date, however, the U.S. National Tour production, as performed by BTPTC, is the only version licensed for production. It is our hope that others will see the extraordinary value in taking a chance and performing American Idiot, as it was originally envisioned.

The amazing success of BTPTC's production of Green Day's American Idiot in the fall of 2015 really could only lead to one thing - an encore revival production June 17-18, 2016.  Tickets are available at